In nearly every other situation, Katlyn Smith’s next run through USA South Athletic Conference competition would be a reminder that the league softball championship goes through Maryville College as long as she is in the circle.

Just a sophomore for the Scots, Smith is in the midst of a campaign even more dominant than her freshman season when she was named the USA South’s Rookie Pitcher of the Year. Win or lose during the conference tournament that will be played this week and next, Smith is likely to leave a frustrating impression on opposing hitters.

Luckily for those hitters, it will also be the last impression she leaves on them.

Smith has been accepted into a nursing program that requires her to focus her attention on school. Despite being at the top of her game she is leaving softball behind with two years of eligibility remaining.

She hopes she still has several weekends to play, though. The No. 1-seeded Scots open the conference tournament at home today with a best-of-three series against Berea College.

Smith will throw the first pitch of the doubleheader at 6 p.m. at the Scots’ home field. The second game will be played at Alcoa High School. If the teams split today, a decisive game will be played on Friday at a time and location to be determined.

Smith, a native of Loganville, Ga., was enrolled at Maryville before she knew what she wanted to study. An anatomy and physiology class she took as a freshman hooked her on nursing. That convinced her to enroll in the nursing program, which will require her to attend classes at Tennessee Wesleyan beginning next school year.

Smith said there were other similar options academically, but the one she has chosen made the most sense financially especially because her family also is paying for her younger sister’s college tuition.

When Maryville softball coach Leah Kelley recruited Smith, she thought she had the strikeout artist for four years. Smith informed Kelley of her decision before she threw a pitch for the Scots.

“It was tough, but it was one of those conversations I knew I had to have early in my career,” Smith said. “This is what I want to do. I would love to stay and play and play for coach Kelley and be here for the program, but it was one of those things that it would be better for me.”

Smith has been impressively better in the circle this season than she was as a freshman. With the conference tournament and ideally the NCAA Tournament remaining, Smith has improved all of her key statistics.

She has lowered her ERA from 1.93 to 1.43 and her WHIP from 1.35 to 1.05. Last year she had 123 strikeouts in 134 innings. So far this year she has 135 strikeouts in 112 innings. She ranks first in the conference in wins, ERA, strikeouts and batting average against (.165), making her an obvious choice for Pitcher of the Year.

Kelley said she first had an idea Smith would be better as a sophomore when she saw her working out in the preseason. It all came together when she pitched a three-hitter with 14 strikeouts in a 3-1 home victory over Berry College — the team that eliminated Maryville in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

That March 6 game was the highlight of the regular season, but she has had four other double-digit strikeout performances. The latest came last week in an 8-3 win over Piedmont. Smith pitched a complete game and struck out 14 to help the Scots clinch their second consecutive West Division title.

“Even though last year we saw she is mature for her age, she has grown from that,” Kelley said. “She’s grown from her experiences. She came in with a different approach and a different attitude. She knew how good she is and how good she can be.

“After getting beat by Berry you could tell she had something to really play for this year — that she didn’t want that to happen again not just for herself but for her team. She wants that success for the team.”

In large part due to her dominance in the circle, Smith gets asked daily if she is going to change her mind and pursue a different degree that allows her to keep playing softball. Smith smiles at all of that these days because she is at peace with her decision.

She described herself as the mom of all of her high school and travel teams because she was always taking care of her teammates. At this point, she has her mind set on becoming a nurse practictioner and one day opening up her own practice.

Knowing her career will end when the postseason ends, Smith said she is determined to make it the best she can for, not only for herself, but for her teammates, too.

Kelley is likely to ask Smith to stay every day until she actually leaves, but deep down she knows the impact Smith can make in the real world is bigger than the one she can make on the softball field.

“Of course as a coach you’re like, ‘No,’ but when it comes down to it her education is the most important thing,” Kelley said.

“You hate to let her go this early because you know what type of career she could have softball-wise, but she is more mature than the game.

“She knows what she wants to do in life. She has the opportunity to do that. She’s going to do well in it.”

Follow @RipSports on Twitter to get more from sports editor Corey Roepken.

Sports Editor

Corey is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University and spent six years at The Houston Chronicle before joining The Daily Times in the summer of 2018.

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